Intent to harm?

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MLB Does Too Much, Too Late in Utley Suspension

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Major League Baseball is doing its best imitation of the National Football League in suspending Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley for his takeout slide that broke the leg of New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. Bucking precedent, seeming to bow to public pressure and the tabloid press, retroactively enforcing the rules -- all the characteristics we've come to expect from arbitrary NFL discipline.

To grasp the extent to which Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer, is behaving like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, we need to separate the offense from the discipline process. One can decry the violent crimes of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, believing that their lengthy NFL suspensions were appropriate, while also acknowledging that the way this discipline was carried out was more about public relations than justice, and violated their right to a fair review.

Similarly, one can condemn Utley's slide as both dirty and illegal -- and almost everyone is, outside of southern California and a few spiteful Yankee fans. (#NotAllYankeeFans.) Still, the decision to punish Utley under Rule 5.09(a)(13) was in the hands of the umpires who should have called him out upon review. Torre had no business going back to try to fix the umps' mistake by meting out a two-game suspension in the middle of the postseason.

The interference rule and its comment state:

A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play;

Rule 5.09 43 Rule 5.09(a)(13) Comment (Rule 6.05(m) Comment): The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.

The video evidence makes it pretty clear that Utley, who is appealing the penalty, violated this rule. The purpose of his slide wasn't to reach the base -- he didn't even start to slide until he was already at second and he never touched the bag -- but rather to disrupt Tejada from turning a double play. The farce was completed by the umpires ruling Utley safe upon review despite his having never touched second -- Torre explained that he was "not required to touch second base once he's called out" -- and the league contending that it's the obligation of the guy with a broken leg to tag him. SB Nation's Grant Bisbee's take pretty much sums up my own thoughts on all this.

The problem is that the rule hasn't really ever been enforced this way. Breaking up a double play is routine in baseball -- it just usually doesn't end up breaking the pivot man's leg. I won't go so far as to say Utley, who has something of a reputation for dirty play, was intending to injure, but the point is that MLB has until now allowed such plays to run that risk.

That will be the crux of Utley's appeal: the lack of precedent in suspending players for takeout slides. Most experts think he has a strong case and believe his suspension will be cut down to one game or wiped away. 

If so, Utley's punishment will result in nothing but public posturing. This was Torre and MLB vowing to "get it right" on protecting middle infielders, as it has on protecting catchers. It's a spur-of-the-moment decision in what has been an ongoing negotiation with the union on how to address such plays. In a damage-control interview with ESPN's Adam Rubin, Torre revealed that the league is testing a rule in the Arizona Fall League, where MLB experiments with game tweaks like replay and pitch clocks, that would require runners to slide directly into the base.

Unsurprisingly, old-guard baseball players and commentators lament that this is part of the game becoming "soft,"  while others welcome the evolution on player safety.  But no matter where one stands on whether the rules need to be amended and enforced to prevent such injuries, we should all agree that the present postseason probably isn't the best time to suddenly start. The players and their union have the right to collectively bargain with the owners and approve such rule interpretations in the offseason. (The NFL didn't afford its relatively weak players' union that right in adopting a new personal conduct policy to punish violent offenses, but it's hard to see MLB's robust players association taking such treatment lying down.) 

What we're left with is a suspension that has no meaning but will likely have a big impact on off-season winter meetings, when MLB owners are expected to review a number of proposals to reduce the risk of what happened to Tejada or Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang, whose knee was fractured last month in a collision with Chris Coghlan of the Chicago Cubs. (Here's one: Enforce the interference rule as it's written, perhaps clarifying the language specifically prohibiting takeout slides.)

Pending his appeal, Utley will be active for Game 3 at CitiField on Monday, and should expect the type of greeting only an incensed New York crowd can deliver -- the John Rocker treatment, as it were. Let's hope the Mets don't do anything stupid; the best revenge should come on the scoreboard. On the league's side, let's hope this is just a momentary lapse, and not a sign that MLB is adopting the NFL's strategy of allowing immediate outrage to haphazardly shape long-term policy. Baseball needs to get it right on protecting middle infielders, and that doesn't happen in the hours between playoff games.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net